Power and policy in Syria

Power and policy in Syria : intelligence services, foreign relations and democracy in the modern Middle East / Radwan Ziadeh. – Rev. paperback ed. – London ; New York : I.B. Tauris, 2013. – xxi, 228 p. – (Library of modern Middle East studies). – ISBN 978-1-78076-290-6

 When this book by Radwan Ziadeh first came out, Syria was not yet embroiled in the civil war resulting from the upheavals connected to the “Arab Spring”. In 2013, when the second edition was released, things had substantially changed. Today Syria is in the eye of the storm, and its situation remains fluid. Nevertheless, despite the current instability, this book is far from outdated as Ziadeh carries out a comprehensive analysis of Syrian governance and power structures under the two Assad rulers. The author argues that Syria is no different from other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. Therefore, the outcome of its revolution won’t differ either: the victory of the Free Army is “only a matter of time”.


The chapters of the book are organised in chronological order, so that the author’s perspective gradually shifts from Syria’s past (dictatorship) to its future (democracy).


Chapter 1 deals with the establishment of Hafez al-Assad’s regime. The author highlights how unity with Egypt moved Syria away from the constitutional principles on which it had been based since independence: after the separation in 1961, Syria’s third republic was a fragile state with a divided elite. Assad built up rigid bureaucratic cadres that filled the institutions of the pyramid-like structure that had the president at its apex. Its three sides were the government administration, the security organs and the Baath party. Appointments were based on personal loyalty while Assad’s authority was represented at all levels. The president was thus able to bring Syrian society under his control.


The next chapter analyzes the handover to Bashar al-Assad, which was carefully organised by Assad Senior. In his last years, the president improved diplomatic relations with neighbours and Western powers. Internally, he stamped out any local centres of power and any members of the establishment aiming to oppose the new regime. The loyalty-based pyramid did the rest, and the succession was efficiently carried out by 11 June 2000, the day after Hafez al-Assad died.


Chapter 3 focuses on the Damascus Spring, the two-year period (1999-2001) during which intellectuals tried to rouse Syrian civil society and demanded more democratic institutions. The governmental repression that followed suggests that a reform process had never been seriously intended by the new president, Assad Jr. Still, Ziadeh considers this moment unique in Syria’s history and crucial for the development of a national opposition: different ideologies came together for change, showing that the country was mature for democracy.


Foreign policy issues are analysed in detail in the following chapter: Assad expanded Syria’s diplomatic and military activity without considering internal stagnation, leading the country to the brink of isolation. Syria now faces the dilemma of “re-establishing its foreign policy bases while keeping its national options”. Quoting Paul Kennedy, Ziadeh argues that the solution is “strategic retraction”, namely “the gradual withdrawal from some commitments with a view to establishing domestic politics on new footings”. This way, the Syrian government may be able to identify its primary interests, and regain local support and international legitimacy. The idea of a democratic turn lies behind such a process.


Chapter 5 examines the relationship between religion and politics in Syria, in an attempt to predict some of the features of the Syrian political arena after Assad. In particular, the author focuses on two elements: the National Honour Pact for Political Work, the document through which the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood committed itself to democracy; and the positive influence that Assad’s “containment strategy” on religion could have on the country’s political future. Assad’s policy of respecting all religious sensibilities, and his positive attitude towards moderate Islam, has prevented the development of a radical opposition to the regime based on Muslim values. Therefore, the author says, the emergence of religious extremism is highly unlikely in Syrian society in the future. Moreover, the author believes that moderate Islam and religious tolerance are going to prevail after the revolution.


The broad, multi-faceted approach to the Syrian issue makes this work a masterpiece, unique and essential for all those interested in the future of the country and its role in the modern Middle East. There is probably no better moment to read a book like this. (Alberto Aspidi)

Source URL: http://www.iai.it/sezioni/pubblicazioni/tis/library_notes/li_2013_4.htm





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